Archive

Archive for March 14, 2014

On the Disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

March 14, 2014 10 comments

The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has become one of the most closely followed news stories of the last few days. While plane disappearances are not unheard of, even in the post-WW2 era, they have become increasingly rare and almost never occur to aircraft as large as the Boeing-777.

I have been meaning to publish an article on this bizarre incident for the last 2-3 days, but was unable to do so because of the constant (and often contradictory) bits of news coming out of multiple “unnamed” sources. Well, things have changed in the last 12-odd hours and we now have a somewhat coherent (but still unclear) picture of what might have happened to that flight. So here is a list of what we know, or don’t know, with a high degree of certainty.

1] The communication gear in that aircraft was able to return a satellite ping as late as 8:11 am Malaysian time on the day it disappeared, or about 7 hours after its transponder stopped broadcasting. This implies that the aircraft was structurally intact and likely flying for about 7 hours after its transponder signal disappeared.

This bit of evidence immediately suggest two things. Firstly, the aircraft in question was being deliberately flown either by a human or computer for an extended period of time. Secondly, whoever was flying that aircraft was not interested in definitely not interested in crashing it and killing everyone on it, as they could have done that almost instantly. Nor were they interested in crashing that aircraft into some building or structure, as that would also have occurred within a few hours. Whoever pulled it off had a well thought out plan.

2] The ACARS system was disabled minutes before the transponder went off air and just before the plane was supposed to enter Vietnamese airspace. This chain of events and the timeline also suggests that the diversion of MH370 was deliberate. The last routine sounding verbal communication from MH370 occurred after the ACARS was disabled but before the transponder went dark. It is also worth noting that the pilot of another commercial plane who was trying to contact that flight half an hour after it “disappeared” claims to have heard some mumbling before the transmission cut.

This suggests that conscious humans were present in the cockpit for at least thirty minutes after the transponder went blank. If the plane was malfunctioning, either of the two pilots in the cockpit could have easily contacted nearby airports or aircraft through one of the many redundant communication systems on that airplane and requested assistance. But they did not do so. Why not?

3] The most mysterious part of the MH370 story is the motive, or to be more accurate- the lack of one to date. If the pilots or whoever was flying that plane was simply interested in killing people by either simply crashing it or crashing it into something, we would have heard about it by now. Similarly the idea that somebody stole an airplane as large and specialized as the 777 for selling its parts on the black market does not make sense, as they are far less riskier ways to steal from your employers inventory.

It is also very odd that no organisation, group or individuals has come forward and taken credit for this disappearance. We have not heard about any list of demands or proof of life for the passengers on that airplane. This is especially odd since we live in an era where the ubiquity of the internet, social media and smartphones make it incredibly easy for any moron with half a brain could have easily done so.

4] The current location of that airliner is the final part of this mystery. But before we go there, let us be clear about one thing- whoever was flying that airplane had thought this out in some detail and intended to survive the landing. With that in mind, let us look at the two (or three) possible parts of the world it could have landed in. The cropped graphic (below) from WaPo is especially good for illustrating what I am going to talk about.

MalaysiaRange_graphic-01

The southern Indian ocean is remarkably lacking in both islands and lightly guarded airstrips. The only islands, or island groups, with a functional airstrips are Christmas island, Cocos (Keeling) island, the american base at Diego Garcia, a few airstrips in the Maldives and a few more in Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion island. We can also add Madagascar to that list- but my point is that pretty much every airstrip in any of those islands is highly commercial and landing on them would attract a lot of “unwanted” attention. It is possible that to land in some remote part of the Western Australian Outback, but even that would attract lots of attention from locals.

The second, and somewhat more plausible, flight path takes the airplane over countries such as Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, India, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. But that route requires the plane to cross many highly surveilled national boundaries and would attract tons of unwanted attention by the military assets stationed near those borders. To put it another way, keeping that flight path secret would require the implicit or accidental cooperation of people in many different countries.

There is however a third, and so far largely ignored, flight path. What if whoever was flying that plane wanted to land it somewhere in east-Africa or the Arabian peninsula? They could have chosen a route that went south of Sri Lanka but north of Diego Garcia- perhaps through a sparsely populated part of the Maldive island chain. From there they could reach an airstrip in the horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti South Sudan, Sudan etc) or a nearby part of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen, the interior of Oman or Saudi Arabia). Perhaps they could have even flown as far as the southern parts of Iran or Pakistan.

What do you think? Comments?